Have you seen the MasterCard “One more day of vacation” commercial yet? Elementary aged school kids look at the camera in disbelief as they talk about all the unused paid vacation days each year. As one of the children says in the commercial, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. They’re paid vacation days.” I chuckled the first time I saw the commercial, but then I started thinking. How many vacation days do I have left? Looking at my hours accrued, I asked myself why haven’t I taken more vacations? This led me to the bigger questions; why do we, as a country, really leave that many vacation days unused? And how does that impact employee wellness in the workplace? According to a survey released August 2014 by the U.S. Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm, more than 20% surveyed did not use their vacation days because they did not want to appear replaceable. With even higher percentages, the top rated reasons for wasting vacation days included lack of funds to afford a vacation, fear that they would only return to piles of work, and the fact that nobody else could do their job.
While these are valid reasons, the truth is that NOT taking vacation time leads to faster burnout as well as poorer performance from employees. Taking time off lowers employee stress levels and keeps people motivated. Haven’t you ever noticed that the most productive day is the day before you leave for vacation? Numerous studies have returned with the same results; employees that don’t take time off have higher levels of burnout and are less productive. The reverse is also true. Employees that utilize vacation days are more rested, and better rested employees are more productive. More importantly, well rested employees make better decisions. They return to work energized and focused. They tend to have a more positive outlook and demeanor, which is important in a field such as ours where we interact with students, schools, clients, and vendors on a daily basis. Not only that, but these employees also tend to be happier and healthier, and subsequently lose less productive time being out of the office sick. The situation is more serious than just providing employees with a positive disposition. Studies have discovered that there is a direct correlation between utilizing fewer vacation days with an increase in heart disease in both women and men. Think about that. Would you rather miss a day of work in the doctor’s office, or out of town visiting old friends? All of this means that it is important for us, as a company, to work together and make sure that everyone is utilizing their vacation time. So what can we do to help spread this wellness, gained from taking time off, to employees? The first step is to lead by example. Some employees fear taking vacation time because of the example set by their supervisors. If they do not see their supervisors making time for a break, they often believe that it will be frowned upon if they attempt to take some time off. Just as important is to ACTUALLY take time away from work. This refers to more than just being out of the office for a few days. This means putting away the work email and not answering all phone calls. Every site has contingency plans for who to contact in case of an emergency. If there is an issue during your vacation time, you should be able to trust that the system is set up to account for that without you having to swoop in and save the day. The day to day running of your site will continue in your temporary absence. Some businesses have found that employees are more likely to use vacation if they create some innovative options and alternatives. An example would be creating a policy which permits for employees to not use vacation hours for time away spent responding to emails and phone calls. This allows employees to take an actual vacation while still being available to respond to any urgent tasks that might come up. Another survey, conducted in November 2013, showed that employees were more likely to take time away if they mixed business with travel. Respondents said they were very likely to pay out of pocket to bring a friend or family member with them on a business trip, or to extend a business trip and turn it into a vacation. Finally, we need to remember to be sympathetic of our staff’s needs to take time off and not send mixed messages. We need to hold each other accountable and be supportive of other’s time away. Help members on your team find time between projects to plan a trip. Remind employees that the rest of the team can hold down the fort in their absence, while also reassuring them that they won’t be replaced. And then we need to set the right example by planning our next vacation. All of this is easier said than done. I type this knowing that I am guilty of not always taking time off, and of responding to texts, emails, and phone calls while on vacation. However, it is possible to actually detach from work and take a real vacation if you prepare ahead of time. Here are some tips I ran across that can help you be able to leave the office with peace of mind and enjoy the restful break that we all deserve.
- Notify colleagues and clients
- Let everyone know, at least a week in advance, that you are going to be taking time off. Give them the dates ahead of time, making sure to also mark it on any shared calendars and clear any reoccurring meetings that might still be scheduled for when you are gone. Let people know how long you will be out and who they can contact in your absence. And don’t forget to put up an out-of-office auto reply on your email!
- Prepare your colleagues
- Talk to the people in your direct office about any projects you are currently working on or any student situations that might come up in your absence. Give them the information that they will need to handle any emergency situations that might be on the horizon.
- Straighten Up
- Just like it is much better to return home to a clean apartment or house after a vacation, the same is true about your office space. Returning to a clean, clutter free office will make it easier to be productive immediately upon your return. Also, it will make it easier for colleagues to find something they might need in your office if everything is in its place while you’re gone.
- Get mentally prepared for vacation
- We are so used to being constantly connected in this day and age that it can oftentimes be difficult to disconnect. It usually takes a couple of days to get into vacation mode. Start really thinking about your trip and destination a few days before you leave. This will help get you in the right mindset.
- Turn off your electronics
- We have become Pavlov’s dogs, checking our smartphones every time they ding or beep or vibrate. When you go on vacation, be aware of this. Turn off some of the persistent reminders so that you are not constantly reaching for your phone. Plan set times when you will check email and messages, if you cannot go an entire vacation without being in touch, and only check messages and emails during that time. Don’t let technology ruin your vacation by tethering you to the office. If you are thinking about work, and drafting work emails in your head, then you are not truly on vacation!
- Trust the people that you work with. If you have given them the information that they should need in your absence, then you should trust them to be able to handle using that information. And, for the supervisors out there, remember that this is how employees learn. We often need to trust them with taking on bigger tasks to give them experience and professional growth.
When I began researching this article, I had no immediate plans to take a vacation. However, since then, an opportunity to take a trip presented itself. I am going to take my own advice from above and enjoy some time away from work. I know my team can be trusted to handle the property while I’m gone. This means it’s time for me to submit this article, pour myself a glass of Pinot Noir, and pack for my vacation. Bon Voyage!